The Meaning of Lavender Graduation

Leave Lav Grad alone!

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News is spreading today on the gay Web (like the “deep Web”  but with better design sense) that Texas A&M’s LGBTQ community is facing some push-back against their plan to host that institution’s first ever Lavender Graduation ceremony. The event, which is slated to take place on April 16, would provide a space for LGBTQ Aggies and their supporters to celebrate, in the words of A&M’s GLBT Resource Center graduate assistant, “their accomplishments here on campus and … their graduation in a friendly environment and to also recognize their achievements that wouldn’t be normally a part of the traditional graduation.” Any participants would, of course, still be welcome to attend the school-wide graduation ceremony in May.

Despite the relative modesty of the event (it is expected to cost less than $1,000), it already has some at A&M in a tizzy. CampusReform.org printed senior history major Joseph Francis’ feelings on the subject:

I just don’t see the necessity. Why should certain students be celebrated “more” just because of their sexuality? I could also see it as somewhat demeaning … what if there was a “special graduation ceremony” for disabled people, or black people, or white people? The student body is diverse, and that’s a great thing which should be commended, but I don’t see how a ceremony like this merits endorsement by the university.

Given the general hostility in Texas to any kind of university-sanctioned campus LGBTQ life—both the A&M Student Senate and state legislature have attempted to cut funding to the GLBT Resource Center in the past year—Francis is likely not alone in his objections. But what he and other detractors fail to comprehend is that Lavender Graduation ceremonies (and similar events for other affinity groups, which do exist) represent for many queer graduates not the opportunity to be “celebrated more,” but an opportunity to be celebrated at all.

The notion of a Lavender Graduation was originally conceived by Dr. Ronni Santo, a lesbian who had been barred from attending the graduations of her children because she was gay. After inaugurating the event at the University of Michigan in 1995, where she was the director of LGBT programs, Santo’s vision caught on at (liberal) universities around the country, including at my own alma mater, Columbia. The use of lavender stems from the color’s long, if somewhat foggy, association with homosexuality.

Origins aside, the meaning of Lav Grad to queer students goes far beyond another excuse for free refreshments during graduation week. While all ceremonies are different (one of the joys of having a “queer” ceremony is that they are generally less invested in tired traditions), Columbia’s involved moving reminiscences from community leaders, performances by campus musicians, and the bestowing of awards for service work and other accomplishments. The point was not to be separatist, but rather to acknowledge the fact that many of us spent much of our college experience—out of choice and, in some cases, necessity—immersed in and nurtured by an intimate queer world that was largely invisible to the larger student body. Moreover, the criteria for praise and achievement in that world were different from those that would be used by the administration on graduation day; a person who was a mainstay in the queer community may not even register in a straight, Phi Beta Kappa-oriented context. Lav Grad, then, serves as a forum in which that injustice can be prevented.

Predictably, some Aggies are objecting to the use of student funds (by way of the embattled GLBT Resource Center) to support the event; I’m sure A&M’s LGBTQ students could come up with a few things they’d rather not see their contributions go to as well, so that’s a wash. One hopes that, in the end, opponents of the event will come around and celebrate with their classmates in whatever context they choose. If not, maybe they can grasp this: Lavender Graduation? It’s not about you.